While new national test results painted a grim picture of student learning during the pandemic, scores in the nation’s second largest school district offered a glimmer of hope and signs of improvement.
In Los Angeles, the average scores for eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading held steady between 2019 and 2022, while eighth-grade reading scores in the district saw a nine-point improvement—a “bright spot” amid otherwise steep academic declines on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “the Nation’s Report Card.”
Of the 26 large urban districts where NAEP assessments were given, Los Angeles was the only one to make gains in eighth-grade reading. The district attributes the improvements not to a radical approach, but to methodically deploying well-known strategies—offering a model for other districts to follow, particularly those that are high-poverty and serve mostly students of color like Los Angeles.
“We were really truly expecting and bracing ourselves for a significant loss,” says Alberto Carvalho, who became superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in February. “We’re seeing this as an early sign, an early signal of better things to come. The question now is, can we sustain?”
He also acknowledged that the district, which serves more than 500,000 K-12 students and is predominantly Latino, is still contending with low proficiency scores and saw declines on California’s state tests, emphasizing the need for stronger improvement.
The NAEP tests, which were administered by the U.S. Education Department between January and March 2022, assess students’ progress in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading, determining whether they have achieved “competency over challenging subject matter.”
Carvalho attributes improvements in the district to tutoring programs, which about 20% of students are now participating in, and a summer-school initiative that targeted students who needed the most help. That program brought about 110,000 students into school for 30 days of summer instruction. He has also identified the 100 schools in the district where students are struggling most and is offering them extra help, closely tracking attendance and progress. He says middle-school students—including the eighth-graders—had higher levels of engagement and attendance during the pandemic than students in other grades, which could have spurred their score improvements.
It’s an example of the strategies that experts have encouraged districts to use to help students recover—offering individualized instruction, prioritizing consistent attendance, and spending extra time on the subjects where students are struggling most.
During a press call about the results last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the nationwide scores “appalling and unacceptable,” but also highlighted some positive points in the data—that 65% of the surveyed districts showed no statistically significant decline in fourth-grade reading and that 84% of districts showed no such decline in eighth-grade reading.
Nationally, the average math score fell five points for fourth-graders and eight points for eighth-graders since 2019—the largest score declines since the NAEP was first administered in 1990. Average reading scores fell by three points for both fourth and eighth graders nationally. Los Angeles saw a four-point decline in fourth-grade math scores, but held steady or improved in the three other tested areas.
“L.A. did well. They had conditions that aligned very well,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, during the press call. “It just did not pan out that way for all of the districts.”
Cleveland public schools, for example, saw a 15-point decline in fourth-grade math scores and a 16-point decline in fourth-grade reading scores. About 120 miles south of Los Angeles, San Diego schools saw little change in reading scores, but eight-point declines in math, the same as the overall average for large-city school districts.
Student proficiency levels remain low
While the NAEP results offered the most comprehensive national picture to date of how student learning was affected during the COVID-19 pandemic, California state test data painted a different picture for Los Angeles.
The state’s Smarter Balanced assessment revealed a drop in the percentage of Los Angeles students who met or exceeded standards in language arts and math in 2022. Based on those results, students in the district lost the equivalent of five to six years of learning on average, Carvalho said. “That’s how deep, how cutting the regression was,” he says. “And obviously, the loss was even more severe for the students who were in academic crisis prior to the pandemic.”
California’s Smarter Balanced assessment is administered every year to a broader range of grades than the NAEP, testing all students in third to eighth grade and 11th grade and assessing students based on the state’s Common Core standards for math and language arts. It’s not clear why the two assessments seem to diverge, though many experts view the NAEP as being the more rigorous assessment.
Some experts urged caution before hailing Los Angeles a success, given the district’s low overall proficiency. Even with significant gains in eighth-grade reading on the NAEP test, just 28% of those students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level — about the same as other big districts around the country. An even smaller percentage of students reached proficiency in the three other subject areas.
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University, knows many districts are working hard to help students recover academically, but there’s still an overwhelming need for improvement. “I don’t mean to discount that,” she says. “But overall, it’s not a pretty picture.”
The NAEP results also added to the long-running debate over sustained school closures during the pandemic. Researchers cautioned against drawing conclusions from this data about how remote-learning policies affected student achievement.
“There’s nothing in this data that tells us that there is a measurable difference in the performance between states and districts, based solely on how long schools were closed,” Carr said during the press call. “We have massive, comprehensive decline everywhere, whether in some cases they were in remote learning longer or shorter than others.”
Los Angeles was one of the districts that kept schools closed the longest, only reopening for fully in-person learning in fall 2021. Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold funding if schools didn’t reopen in 2020, saw changes in average math and reading scores between 2019 and 2022 that were comparable to those in California, where leaders were much more cautious about reopening schools.
Carvalho says his goal is to make sure more students are mastering material and reaching proficiency, not just improving in average test scores. The district recently added additional learning days during winter and spring breaks to give students more instructional time, and is offering tutoring before and after school. “An incredible amount of work lies ahead,” he says. “Because as much as we celebrate these gains or very, very modest losses, where our students are today is not where they need to be.”
Lake would like to see more districts offer students high-dosage, quality tutoring, which research shows can lead to significant learning gains, and carve out extra time for math instruction, given the steep declines in the subject.
“Now’s not the time to hide from data or to discount data. It’s to really use this information to finally get a handle on what material kids are mastering and where they’re struggling,” she says. “If we do that right, that will be a long term win for public education.”
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com